On January 9, 2013, the Nestle Purina PetCare Company announced a voluntary recall of Waggin’ Train and Canyon Creek Ranch brand chicken jerky dog treats. Waggin’ Train LLC, the producer of the treats, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Nestle Purina PetCare. Another company, Milo’s Kitchen, a subsidiary of Del Monte, also voluntarily recalled its Chicken Jerky and Chicken Grillers treats.

The companies withdrew the products from the market after the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets found trace amounts of antibiotic residue in samples of the treats. Those antibiotics are not approved in the United States for use in poultry. However, Nestle Purina has noted that “there is no indication that the trace amounts of antibiotic residue” found in its treats are linked to the FDA’s ongoing investigation of pet illnesses and deaths associated with jerky treats.

Also on January 9, NBC News reported that as many as 500 dogs and nine cats “may have died” after consuming chicken jerky pet treats made in China. That assertion followed the release of a progress report by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine related to its investigation of pet illnesses and deaths associated with jerky treats produced there. Since 2010 the FDA has received 2,674 reports of illnesses potentially related to treats manufactured in China. The reports include the deaths of 501 dogs and one cat.

Although the FDA has so far been unable to confirm a link between the treats and the animals’ deaths, on September 14, 2012, the FDA confirmed that since 2007 the agency has “become aware of increasing numbers of illnesses in pets associated with the consumption of jerky pet treats.” That report confirmed receipt of approximately 2,200 reports of pet illnesses that included 360 dog deaths and one cat death over 18 months.

Originally the FDA’s cautionary statements referred only to chicken jerky products. In 2012 complaints “expanded” to include other products such as duck and sweet potato treats. The FDA has not taken suspicious products off the market, it says, because “unless a contaminant is detected and we have evidence that a product is adulterated,” it is reportedly limited in the actions it can take.

The FDA continues to investigate whether or not the products contribute to problems such as diarrhea and vomiting, as well as kidney failure and Fanconi syndrome, a disease involving the renal tubes of the kidney. A September 2012 NBC News report confirmed that lawsuits have been filed against retail outlets that sell the treats as well as the companies that make them, including Nestle Purina.

In August 2012, Food and Water Watch, a consumer rights organization that focuses primarily on corporate and government accountability relating to food and water, asked the FDA to “take stronger actions to prevent further pet illnesses and to inform consumers of the safety issues related to” pet treats made in China. Food and Water Watch reported that the FDA “admitted that in April [2012], Chinese government officials prevented the agency from inspecting the poultry slaughter facilities in China that produce the dog treats in question, as well as from collecting samples of the suspect treats to do its own analysis.”

As a result, according to Food and Water Watch, the FDA had the “authority to stop the importation of pet treats…immediately” and to “require retailers that sell the imported treats to post cautionary advisories to alert consumers to safety issues associated with the treats.” The FDA did neither.

China’s ongoing food-safety problems, related to human and pet foods, resulted in the Food Safety Law, which went into effect in that country in June 2009, according to the New York Times. However, implementation of the law has been difficult, owing in part to the inability of government regulators to keep up with the expanding market and also to alleged government inefficiency and corruption. New York Times reporter Yanzhong Huang noted that “a 2011 study published in the Chinese Journal of Food Hygiene estimated that more than 94 million people in China become ill each year from bacterial food-borne diseases, leading to about 8,500 deaths annually.”

Since 2000, according to the FDA, the importation of pet food from China has increased more than 85-fold. An estimated 86 million pounds of pet food came from China in 2011. Perhaps until the country’s regulatory agencies are able to keep pace with the exponential growth of its market, and in light of the fact that the FDA appears hesitant to stop the importation of pet treats, consumers will have to take it upon themselves to reject pet food and treats that are “Made in China.”

The FDA maintains a pet food recall products list here.